14 June 1996

Ex-Soviets gearing up with

UScombines

Five years of independence and Uzbekistan is set to start a harvest with a difference – using over 400 US-built Case combines. Andy Collings reports on the country, its agriculture and its machinery.

UZBEKISTAN is not a country to be found on many tourist maps. Situated in central Asia with Kazakhstan to the north and Afghanistan to the south, it has painfully cold winters, excruciatingly hot summers and a road system which can only be likened to an endless cattle grid.

A former member state of the USSR, Uzbekistan now struggles to come to terms with independence which was achieved in 1991.

Short of cash for serious investment in industry, it is in agriculture that the greatest efforts are being made – with the country aiming to become a net exporter of grain by the turn of the century.

But that goal is still some way off. The national average yield for wheat is under 2t/ha (0.8t/acre) although on the more fertile soils where irrigation is used extensively, yields of over 6t/ha (2.4t/acre) are not uncommon.

In terms of national grain production – principally wheat and maize – Uzbekistan produces about 3.4m tonnes, a vast improvement on the 300,000t or so produced in pre-independence years. This has been achieved mainly through the introduction of more arable land and a reduction in the area used for growing cotton – a crop which is the countrys biggest export earner, about 4m tonnes/year.

There has also been a move towards double-cropping: winter-sown barley is harvested towards the end of May, the land cultivated and sown with maize. A 90-day growing season is long enough to produce ripe cobs which are then harvested in the first weeks of September.

Modern seed varieties and better growing techniques have made their mark although it has to be said the hoe and donkey remain very much on the scene.

One of the biggest problems to be solved is the shortage of water for irrigation. With an average rainfall of just 20cm (8in), irrigation is essential for all crops. Current practice is to open up ditches and let water flow out on to a field – simple and easy but a very inefficient use of water.

Aral Sea water

An important water supply from the Aral Sea Basin is now seriously threatened through over-extraction – not just by Uzbekistan but by several other surrounding countries – to the point where it is drying up. Salvation may come from an international program designed to improve water management.

In terms of agricultural machinery, the legacy of Russian influence remains. It is difficult, from a western viewpoint at least, not to criticise the countrys fleet of ageing, crudely built tractors which have little more to offer than an engine, gearbox, four wheels and a seat. But that is the way it was and is – there is simply not enough money available.

Having said that though, if the projected plans of the government come to fruition and the economy improves, Uzbekistan should eventually offer ripe pickings for the enterprising western machinery manufacturer.

One manufacturer, Case, has already taken the plunge. The company has struck a deal to export 439 axial flow combines (2166 models with 15ft, 20ft and 22ft headers) to the country which, with service contracts, is worth some $60m. There are also plans to export 150 Magnum tractors.

All of which is something of a coup for Case – and an interesting move by the Uzbekistan government.

Mr Matchanou, deputy chairman of the "Uzselgozmash Holding" – the governments agricultural machinery division – is one of the key people involved when purchasing decisions of such magnitude are made.

"Russian-built combines are generally only able to harvest 90% of a crop, 10% of it goes out the back," he explains. "Modern western combines are able to reduce these losses to as low as 2-3%. Using these machines should enable us to increase yields substantially."

An interesting logic which certainly has some value. But who stumps up the money to pay for them? Case uses an intermediatory bank which guarantees payment.

Dispatched from the USA, first by boat to Helsinki and then by train to Pakhta – a depot some 30 miles south-east of capital city Tashkent – the combines are given a pre-delivery inspection by a team of Case engineers before being sent on their way to a series of bases placed at strategic points throughout Uzbekistan. They are then allocated to farms in the area.

All are delivered under their own steam with distances of up to 300 miles not uncommon.

Pakhta is also set to be Cases main parts depot with plans to carry a generous amount of spares to keep the combines running.

Dealers set-up

Pre-independence saw farms being provided with machinery and spares but the intention is now to set up dealers which will sell to farms. Currently, there is a form of transition between state-provided and purchased machinery.

Setting up export deals is not easy. The Uzbekistan way of business requires a potential exporter to have contacts within the country who, in turn, have the ear of decision makers.

Case employs agents to act on its behalf but the actual deal-sealing process is submerged in a greyness which is hard to penetrate. Few, it seems, are prepared to discuss the finer details and stories can differ.

What is apparent though, is that it helps to offer one or two incentives. Mr Matchanou is convinced Case is about to enter into a joint venture to build cotton-picking machines and tractors. The cotton picking machines, maybe, says Case, but the tractors?

Such a joint venture would clearly be of interest to Uzbekistan which has about 15 machinery plants standing almost idle since independence took away their eastern markets.

Even so, overall, Uzbekistan clearly has the potential to succeed in its agricultural aims – it has the climate, the land and, in many respects, the support of its 22.2m population.

Since independence, the country can be seen as a developing nation with a pile of obstacles.

Politically, despite its independent status, there remains a "state" mentality which controls and influences the way the country works. There is, for example, still a strong, secret police system and, whether by habit or design, people are reluctant to speak openly.

There is also the matter of the impending elections in Russia – a return of the communist party and their ideals could pose a threat to the future plans of Uzbekistan.


&#8226 Position:Central Asia.

&#8226 Area; 173,000sq miles.

&#8226 Population: 22.2m.

&#8226 Main crops:Wheat, cotton, maize, rice, vegetables.

&#8226 Annual grain production:3.4m tonnes.

&#8226 Average wheat yield:2t/ha.

Cotton plants get their first inter-row clean-up. Uzbekistan produces more than 4m tonnes of cotton each year and is is a major export earner.

Ready for, unloading. One of 400 Case 2166 combines arrives at Pakhta depot to be fitted with wheels and given a pre-delivery inspection before being driven to a series of bases throughout the main arable areas.

Mechanised silage-making – of a sort. Cut lucerne, after being pushed into a heap, is loaded on a trailer at a farm north-east of Tashkent.